There’s a reasonable argument, I believe, that the chile, (or chillie, chili, or pepper), rivals the tomato for the most widespread crop to have originated in South America and Mexico. Numbers-wise, worldwide tomato cultivation dwarfs that of chiles at something like 3:1, but try to tell me that chiles aren’t far more integral to the soul of more cuisines around the globe, and I’ll beg to differ. Tomatoes are there, yes, but chiles are the heartbeat. If you have even a scrap of Chile Head predilection, discovering and playing with the almost endless permutations of spicy condiments is a constant delight – A little known bastion of such stuff, (at least here in the US), is called sambal – also know as Indonesian rocket fuel.
Sambal is truly ubiquitous in Indonesian cuisine, (the word is borrowed from the Malayan sambel, meaning condiment.) There are over 40 widely popular varieties, and far more personal riffs on those – There are tens of thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and damn near every one has their own sambal. Chiles are the heartbeat of sambal, mixed with everything from shallots and scallions to shrimp paste and tamarind. The consistency ranges from thin to ketchup-like sauces, and relishes to pastes. Heat profiles go from delicate to fire breathing, and everything in between. There’s a delightful range of all the basic five flavor notes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Sambals are woven into favorite dishes from fresh veggies to fish, chicken, beef, and various soups and stews.
Chiles have a long history in Indonesia, likely introduced by the Portuguese as early as the 16th century. Indonesians were already familiar with some sense of heat zing, through black pepper and ginger. Chiles, with their admirably higher voltage, were a big hit right off the boat.
Traditionally prepared with a stone mortar and pestle, (that look identical to a molcajete and tejolote, interestingly enough), sambal can be either raw or cooked. That choice is often made depending on whether a small batch is being made for immediate consumption, or a larger one for longer term use. Locals tend to insist on freshness, of course, so what you’ll get in a restaurant is likely to have been made either that day, or even right before your meal is served. As with any other wildly popular condiment, there are a bunch of commercially prepared options out there – If Indonesian home cooks sniff at that stuff and swear their home made is way better, they’re undoubtedly right – but they may well have a jar or two in their pantry as well.
Naturally, Indonesia boasts a raft of local chile varieties, including variants of the habanero (adyuma), birds eye (cabe rawit), cayenne (cabi merah), New Mexican (Lombok), naga jolokia (cabe taliwang), and many more. As their parent varieties suggest, these run the gamut from mild to nuclear. You can use the common substitutes for any of these. Birds eye chiles can be hard to find fresh, but are readily available dried, and reconstitute quickly.
Since there’s no truly logical way to present a few options to y’all, we’ll just go with the ones we like most. As always, you’re strongly encouraged to dig into the varieties and their accompanying dishes and branch out on your own. Indonesians eat sambal with almost anything, so it’s a guarantee there’s a world of great pairings out there for you.
1. The first recipe, for Sambal Kecap Pedas, requires the signature sweet soy sauce of Indonesia, Kecap Manis (kuh-CHOP MAH-nees). That stuff is, all by itself, a widely popular dipping sauce and adjunct for many things, and it’s also super easy to make at home, so I provided a recipe for that as well.
2. As with everything, you should have some flexibility when the spirit moves you. Don’t worry if you don’t have ‘the right chile’ on hand – Use what you have and like for any or all of these recipes.
Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)
2 Cups Dark Soy Sauce
1 Cup Palm Sugar (or Brown Sugar)
1/4 Cup Water
1/2” chunk fresh Ginger Root
1/4 Star Anise Pod
1/2” Cinnamon Stick (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)
1 fat clove fresh Garlic
Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, combine sugar and soy sauce. Whisk constantly to combine and dissolve sugar.
Once soy and sugar are fully combined, add water, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and star anise.
Turn heat up to medium high, whisking steadily and bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer gently until sugar is fully dissolved and water has been completely absorbed, about 10 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.
Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a clean glass jar with an air tight lid.
Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.
Sambal Kecap Pedas – Spicy Sweet
This is a super simple, quick sambal, and it’s delicious
Note – It does require that Kecap Manis sweet soy sauce.
Good birds eye chiles are truly hot little dudes. The low end of the spectrum I listed has a notable, but not debilitating mouth burn, while the high end will cure your sinus issues – adjust accordingly.
2-3 fresh Scallions (shallots are more traditional, so feel free to use them if you prefer)
24-48 Birds Eye Chiles
4-6 Tablespoons Kecap Manis
If you’re using dried birds eye chiles, set them in a non-reactive dish and cover them with very hot water. Allow them to steep until soft and fully reconstituted, about 15 minutes.
Peel and end trim scallions, then slice very thinly, (if you have a mandoline, (the kitchen toy, not the instrument), this is the time to get that in play.)
Remove chiles from soaking water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel, (and now do NOT pick your nose or rub your eyes…), and mince chiles.
Combine shallot and chiles in a non-reactive bowl and add 4 tablespoons of kecap manis – mix with a spoon, and add more sauce if you like things a bit thinner – what you want is a sort of chunky salsa consistency.
Allow the sambal to blend for at least 15-30 minutes before serving.
This is the one you’re most likely to have seen in a jar at a store near you. It’s kinda like sriracha, but much more complex.
1/2 Pound Red Chiles, (Thai, or red jalapeño, New Mexican, cayenne, or serranos will do just fine)
2 fat cloves fresh Garlic
1 stalk Lemongrass
1” fresh Ginger Root
1 small Lime
1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Palm Sugar, (or brown)
Stem chiles and rough chop.
Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.
Peel, trim and rough chop just the white part of the lemon grass.
Zest lime and set fruit aside.
Add chiles, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass to a blender vessel and pulse to incorporate.
Add about half the vinegar and pulse, then repeat with the rest of the vinegar and pulse until you have a homogenous mix.
Add the puréed mix to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.
When the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer.
Add sugar, lime zest, a quarter of a lime worth of juice, and a pinch of salt, whisk to incorporate.
Cook until the sugar is fully dissolved, about 2-3 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Transfer to a clean glass jar with an airtight lid.
Will last up to a week refrigerated, (but it probably won’t last that long, it’s delicious!)
Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo
This is my swing on what is arguably the most famous Padang sambal, and it’s a winner – It’s traditionally made with green tomatoes, but I love it with tomatillos – Call it fusion if you like…
You can see from my images that I used what I had for chiles, and let me assure you, it was spectacular.
10-12 long green Chiles (New Mexican or Hatch are perfect – Pick your preferred heat level.)
3-4 large Shallots (You can use scallions, white, or yellow onion too, if that’s what you’ve got)
4-5 large Tomatillos
1 small Lime
1 fat clove fresh Garlic
8-12 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce
Pinch of Salt
Pinch of Sugar
Stem chiles, peel and trim shallots and garlic, peel and stem tomatillos.
Cut all that stuff in half, as well as the lime.
Arrange chiles, shallots, garlic, tomatillos and lime on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
Set oven on Broil, and position a rack in the upper middle zone.
Roast the veggies until the skins are blistered, turning once for even cooking, about 7-10 minutes total.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes.
Toss everything into a blender vessel and squeeze the juice from the half lime in as well.
Pulse until you have a nice, chunky consistency.
Add 3 drops of fish sauce, pinch of salt and sugar and pulse to incorporate.
Taste and adjust fish sauce, salt, sugar and lime as desired.
Transfer to a clean glass jar with an air tight lid. Will store refrigerated for up to 5 days.
Asinan – Sweet And Sour Cucumber Salad
Goes great with a Indonesian inspired meal.
For the Salad
1 large, fresh Cucumber
1 small sweet Onion
1 Chile (jalapeño or Serrano goes well if you like heat)
5-6 stalks Cilantro
For the Dressing
4 Tablespoons Lime Juice
3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)
1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Hot Chile Oil
Rinse, peel and slice cucumber, half the onion, and the chile into thin rounds, (again, if you’ve got a mandoline, get it in play).
Fold the cilantro stocks over a few times, bundle that tightly, and slice through the bundle to get a nice fine cut.
Transfer cuke, onion, chile, and cilantro into a serving bowl and toss to combine.
Mix all dressing ingredients in a cruet or small jar and shake to incorporate.
Dress the salad lightly and allow it to sit and marinate, refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before serving.